Sunday 17 February 2019

‘Kick his chauffeur too’: a brilliant man who just doesn’t fit in

The deep undercurrents of Irish politics may be the reason for the decidedly mixed reaction to Tony O’Reilly’s insolvency

Anthony O’Reilly
Anthony O’Reilly

THE best-known of Sir Anthony O'Reilly's myriad funny stories concerned himself, and perhaps was the most telling of them all.

It was his final appearance in an Ireland rugby shirt. It was an emergency call-up; he was already a prominent businessman and not exactly match-fit. A fumbled ball, a blow to the head, and as he recovered his senses O'Reilly heard a voice from the crowd shout, "And kick his bloody chauffeur as well!"

O'Reilly attracts admiration and dislike in equal measure. Or perhaps the dislike exceeds the admiration. It is easy to see why he would be admired: good-looking, charming, a brilliant sportsman, a remarkable raconteur and, for all but the last few years, hugely successful.

That, of course, is enough reason to be disliked. Envy is never in short supply and there can be few who would not want to have some of O'Reilly's gifts. But in his case, there seems to be more to it. It can be heard simmering in the background to the coverage of his insolvency case.

As the rugby story illustrates, it started from the beginning. Perhaps O'Reilly's greatest success - and the one of which he was probably most proud - was the creation of the Kerrygold international brand from the multitude of anonymous Irish butters.

Yet the comment one hears most often from that period is criticism of his sale of Erin Foods to Heinz, when he left the dairy board to become chief executive of the state-owned Irish Sugar Company.

Later, admiration for the financial skill with which he acquired control of Independent Newspapers was at least matched by complaints that he had not paid enough for the company.

Over the next 20 years, shareholders would have been more than happy to see the second- ranked Irish newspaper group (behind the Press group) become a global company.

But, as those who worked there know, everything was accompanied to a drumbeat about how "unsuitable" Sir Anthony was to be a newspaper proprietor, and the threat that he posed to everyone, from the government to the local newsagent.

On the face of it, this carping seems very odd. There was never any evidence that Erin Foods was valuable "family silver." Rather the reverse. Journalists in the Independent group became the best paid in the country and - as I remember in Belfast - others did well out of relativity claims.

The drumbeat only ever produced one precise note - the famous, or infamous, "Payback" editorial of 1997. The contents of an editorial are a newspaper's prerogative. Facts are supposed to be sacred, but comment is free. Whatever the circumstances, there is no doubt that this one caught the public mood at the time.

The one clear, consistent policy was that there was to be no truck with republicanism. That was not popular either. Despite what one hear nowadays, there was widespread passive support for extreme republicanism for a long time, from the highest to the lowest echelons of Irish society.

As well as campaigning against the IRA, O'Reilly was instrumental in cutting off much of their American money by setting up the Ireland Fund to provide an alternative for Irish Americans to contribute their dollars.

One would like to have a silver dollar for every time the Ireland Fund's achievements have breen overlooked. One would not do well getting a silver dollar for ever time it received praise.

The deep undercurrents of Irish politics may be the fundamental reason for O'Reilly's decidedly mixed reputation, and the decidedly mixed reaction to his insolvency. He does not fit in, and never did.

To use Eamon Dunphy's phrase in a different context, you have to be "a decent skin." O'Reilly may be a decent man, but he does not go in for decent skinship.

His style is patrician, his politics are moderate unionist, he is comfortable with both Irish and British nationality. The knighthood said a lot about him; the reaction to it said a lot about other people.

These things go deeper than we like to think. Before 1916, the strongest republican vituperation was reserved, not for unionists, 
or even the British, but for those who had been educated by the Jesuits.

In the end, Tony O'Reilly may well be remembered more for his downfall than his achievements. Just like that last game with the wag on the sidelines.

There may be such a thing as being wrongly remembered for the right reasons.

Brendan Keenan

Sunday Independent

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